Decline

Sex, Lies, and Violence: Did Noah Just Rape Helen in ‘The Affair’?

Noah’s torture at the hands of Gunther continues, as Helen does everything to win Noah back. But her damaged husband may damage her too.

01.09.17 4:00 AM ET

Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a mess, as everyone agrees, and tells him. As of tonight, he is a mess who possibly just sexually assaulted his ex-wife. Let the debate begin.

The Affair’s battered, flawed lead male character is a crucible of crisis. He went to jail because he felt guilty for having an affair, and because he loved two women very differently, one—ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) as the mother of his children, and second wife Alison (Ruth Wilson) romantically. Alison is now his soon-to-be second ex-wife.

Both women contributed to the death of Scott Lockhart (Colin Donnell)—Helen by running him over and Alison by pushing him in front of the car.

Noah took the rap, and went to jail for three years, and has been stabbed in the neck by a mystery assailant.

This might be Gunther (Brendan Fraser), a vicious, sadistic prison guard, who envied Noah for his glamorous life and who violently menaced him for his prison term, doing particular damage to his shoulder.

The show has become a hive of complication: Noah still wants Alison, and reunited with her without realizing she’d had sex with her ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson). Then they left each other. Helen still wants Noah, and came across him splashing about in a pond last week next to his dead father’s house, Noah seeing the ghoul of his own teenage self in front of him.

He’s off his head on Vicodin for the busted shoulder, which means he’s hallucinating and on edge, and Helen found him like this and ferried him back to Brooklyn. And from there, in Anya Epstein’s seventh episode of the third season, The Affair returned to type—and two very different interpretations of the same events.

In Helen’s version, she is the plainly dressed, sad, and compromised caretaker of her ex-husband, trying to build bridges with Nina (Jennifer Esposito), Noah’s sister, by phone and trying to ameliorate the inevitable concerns of her hot new boyfriend Vic Ullah (Omar Metwally). Noah’s holed up in the basement, sick, and the meek accepter of her merciful tenderness.

Helen is in her element, co-opting Noah’s phone, making good with his parole officer. It’s kind of like Misery, with nicer furnishings. Poor Noah must ask Helen to leave while he has a bath. Vic was irritated, naturally, to discover the ex was living downstairs, and with his attempted murderer still on the loose.

Still, on Helen’s request, Vic—“Dr. Ooh-la-la,” Noah calls him, which earned a guffaw from this sofa—takes a look at him, though won’t agree to Noah’s request for lots more Vicodin, prescribing some antibiotics instead. “The man’s a mess,” he says to Helen, asking her to get him out of the house. He’d be better in a rehab facility.

Noah says to Helen that Vic hates him, and she passes her drug-addicted ex-husband an Ambien as well as the antibiotics. He thinks his hears his children upstairs, but they are not there.

Suddenly, daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) appears, needing a tent for an upstate camping trip with her awful boyfriend Furkat (Jonathan Cake), who is also her boss, a photographer, and prize dickwad. His name is ridiculous, he is a sleaze, and of course he has a daughter called Juniper.

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Whitney, for whom the word “troubled” was invented—alongside “brat”—can’t believe Helen has let Noah back into the house after all the hurt he has caused and heads off, only to find her dad being beaten up by Furkat outside.

Noah is left again a mess.

Afterward, Helen can’t work out why Noah didn’t fight back—unaware of the abuse he has suffered at the hands of Gunther. And even we don’t know the full scale of this, though Gunther’s malevolence has an implication of sexual violence to it. Was Noah raped?

Whitney wonders why Helen hates herself so much, and why she—rather than Noah—is so crazy.

And Helen’s love for Noah is crazy, as evidenced when she lies down next to him to sleep in the drugged captivity she has helped create. She finally has Noah back where she wants him.

Their son Trevor’s (Jadon Sand) voice disturbs her. He’s in a musical production of Jane Eyre, and he is just talking about “the crazy lady in the attic” when a thud is heard. Helen says it’s plumbers, Vic knows it is still Noah, and—reasonably enough—tells Helen he’s out. It’s obvious to Vic that Helen still loves Noah, or in some fundamental way will never be able to jettison him from her life. She has no answer when he asks why Helen can’t let Noah go. And so Vic goes.

(Finally, Vic and I can be together! Vic, the key’s under the mat!)

Just then Noah appeared, and was sorry if Vic had left because of him. Helen took her glass of wine to her dim patio. She was crying. She told Noah she forgave him, that he had to stop punishing himself. He was puzzled as to why Helen should need to forgive him. (Oh Helen, you’re so wrong about Noah.) They kiss, and kiss more, and then head to bed, and mid-sexual flow stop. “What?” Helen asks.

Noah obviously recalls the passage of events differently. For one, on that car trip back from his dad’s, he recalled stopping in at Gunther’s family hunting shop. Gunther’s mother is there, and reveals to Noah—who buys a brute-looking knife in a sheath—that “John” is her oldest child, married 16 years to a wife called Kayleigh, who is a hairdresser.

He was always itching to get out of town, Gunther’s mother says. You can see why his envy and hatred burns so bright for Noah. Noah tells her to tell Gunther he sends his best, and accepts a gift of fresh beef jerky.

Helen is worried about his shoulder. He just wants to sleep. At home he does hear family life above him, even if in Helen’s version the kids aren’t there.

Noah also recalls Vic seeing him, but Vic is dressed in a crisp white shirt in Noah’s memory and much harsher. We learn Gunther’s abuse led Noah’s shoulder to be broken in three places, but as in Helen’s memory Vic won’t give him Vicodin.

In his memory Vic checks his neck wound, and tells him a bad infection could lead to hallucinations, which might explain the ghosts of Gunther that Noah keeps seeing—if they are ghosts.

Vic hisses at Noah to leave, and tells him he is not worried about his presence, comparing Noah’s ill, drug-addicted self to Vic’s healthy stability.

Noah falls asleep, and dreams of Gunther again, visiting him in his solitary cell to torment and needle him. He is ensuring Noah isn’t eating properly or getting enough water. Gunther asks why he’s in the slammer. When Noah reveals he had an affair, Gunther sneers that he cannot understand why. Noah had everything. Now he is no better than Gunther.

Noah sneers back that he’ll be out of here, while Gunther will stay in this awful place.

That earns more physical punishment on Noah’s shoulder, and a vow by Gunther to make sure Noah won’t get out of jail. When Noah tries to stop the assault, Gunther claims he is assaulting him—more solitary time beckons.

On waking (and Noah has no memory of Helen being next to him), Noah hears voices. Furkat is outside, and he too sneers at Noah about how pathetic he is, and the gross stories Whitney has told him. He punches Noah, who looks up to see Whitney dressed in a less dressy get-up than Helen recalled.

When he wakes again, post-that beating, he hears Trevor talking above, while in the shadows of the room Gunther is there smoking. They fight, Noah asks what he wants. Noah again comes off worst, although when he rushes upstairs after Gunther has left Helen hasn’t seen him. Was Gunther really there? Did that happen, or was it the meds?

The Helen Noah recalls is wearing a sexy dress, the patio is beautifully lit, and Helen is not at all sad about Vic’s departure. Helen encourages Noah, his perfumed, enabling gaoler, to take more Vicodin. Noah in a drugged state is even more hers.

Helen tells Noah seductively that he’s done some bad things, but that she forgives him. Which Helen is the real Helen, hers or his? She tells him, her drugged, pliant ex-husband, that all will be OK. Sex begins. Where Helen’s memory ended on her asking “What?” as Noah hesitated mid-intercourse, in his memory he tells her, “You don’t know me.”

“I do,” Helen says.

“You don’t,” Noah says.

“I do,” Helen says.

As the sex gets more violent, Noah repeats that she doesn’t know him. If the sex began as consensual and initiated by Helen, it ends as disturbingly violent, and an assault on her. It was rough sex she did not want, or elicit.

Its violence and consensual ambiguity might have reminded some fans of the time Noah had disturbingly violent sex with Alison against a tree, and there was debate online back then over whether it was rape or not. A similar debate may well happen again after tonight.

It also reflected the theme of sexual assault on campus, played out around the dinner party debates of earlier in the season. Noah’s novel featured a fictional distillation of his assault on Alison, so he knows what his critics may think him capable of.

The dual perspective of The Affair worked meaningfully tonight: Helen’s elided the assault completely, whereas Noah—unsparing on himself—recalled it all too graphically.

That included his memory of Helen crying into the pillow at the end. If this was a sexual assault, was Noah—drugged, out of control, out of himself—recalling and re-enacting his own rape at the hands of Gunther? Or the violence that Gunther represents?

That would be no excuse of course—and if you did see it as a sexual assault, then it means Noah has done the same to his two wives.

Because Noah is such a mess all the time, and mess keeps unfolding around him all the time, the first assault on Alison wasn’t interrogated that much in the drama.

How about this second time, and will Helen—who wants this man back in her life so desperately—see his violation of her as the most brutal and revealing manifestation of why a reunion right now would be a terrible idea?

Whatever, The Affair just got even darker—if that were possible.